Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) says it’s time for Canadians to face “some hard truths” about their history and residential schools. “It was not simply a dark chapter,” says a report by the TRC, but “an integral part of the making of Canada”.
Justice Murray Sinclair says an Interim Report released by the TRC on February 24 is “a snapshot of what we’ve done to date,” required at the mid-point of its work. “We’ve been to 500 Aboriginal communities and listened to more than 3000 former students,” said Sinclair. “We have not come close to collecting all the documents from government and the churches. There’s a significant number of documents that still need to be gathered and analyzed.”
Regardless, the “snapshot” that’s developed shows the “Canadian government signed treaties it did not respect, took over land without making treaties, and unilaterally passed laws that controlled nearly every aspect of Aboriginal life.”
This history, said the TRC, shaped Canadians’ attitudes and Aboriginal-Canadian relations for the past 150 years or more.
The Interim Report was released with a historical summary of residential schools in Canada entitled “They Came for the Children: Canada, Aboriginal Peoples and Residential Schools”. The TRC commissioners said a “significant degree of ignorance” is at the root of so much misunderstanding between Canadians and Aboriginal peoples.
“This isn’t Aboriginal history – it’s Canadian history,” said TRC co-chair Marie Wilson.
“One of the greatest challenges we face as a commission is the degree of continuing ignorance by people like me, and others like me across this country, who went through school where none of this was taught to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. We knew nothing about residential schools or what was going on in them.”
Sinclair acknowledged the TRC’s troubled birth that began with infighting amongst the first three co-chairs, accusations that the federal government was really running the show, followed by an avalanche of complaints from residential school survivors. All three co-chairs resigned. Sinclair, Wilson and Wilton Littlechild replaced them. The TRC’s been playing catch-up with an almost impossible mandate ever since.
The Interim Report recommends, among other things, that framed copies of the National Apology on Residential Schools be posted in every high school in Canada, that churches and governments create a “cultural revival fund” to support projects by Aboriginal peoples, and that provincial and territorial education departments review history courses to improve the way students are taught about Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The TRC also recommends that governments and churches be guided from now on by the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“Residential schools operated in Canada for well over a century,” said Sinclair. “It took seven generations to get where we are today. It may take us just as long to fix this.”
Few topics show how great a divide exists between the worlds of Indigenous and settler populations than residential schools. On one side of that divide, there isn’t a single Aboriginal family that hasn’t felt, seen, lived and understood the purpose of residential schools. People grew up as or learned about stolen children, lost generations, fractured families and crippled cultures because it shaped their lives and futures. They also knew that residential schools were but one facet of Canadian policy meant to dispossess and even destroy Indigenous nations.
On the other side is a wall of widespread denial and willful ignorance by governments, academics and a lot of ordinary people. The Canadian government and churches denied responsibility for this gross violation of human rights. Things were done with the best of intentions, they said. Mistakes were made, and were a product of attitudes of the times. The federal government and churches deflected blame until they could no longer evade the thousands of frail survivors pointing fingers in accusation.
“There’s a great deal of misinformation about residential schools in the minds of the Canadian public,” explained Sinclair. He said the TRC hoped its historical summary might encourage provincial education departments to begin “significant and constant education programs” to fill huge gaps in Canadian history about Aboriginal peoples.
Jackson Lafferty is the Minister of Education with the Northwest Territories and a former student at a residential school. He said his department has already started to develop a new history curriculum and plans to unveil it this fall. He urged his provincial counterparts to do the same as soon as possible.
The TRC’s Interim Report and historical summary, “They Came for the Children”, can be found at: www.trc.ca